What are trans-fats? Their dirty secret explained.

What are trans-fats? Their dirty secret explained.

You need fat

For decades now, fats have gotten a bad rap. Obesity, or so it was thought, must be linked to consuming large amounts of fat: cause and effect! It was a common error and an obvious one at that. This train of thought led to millions of Americans switching to a low-fat diet.

Not a great solutions as it turns out. Fat is a crucial component to our diets. It has its place among proteins and carbs. The 3 widely accepted building blocks that make up our dietary intake. 

A bad trade 

Another effect that this population-wide fad had was that although food manufacturers started mass producing fat-free foods, to ensure that their products would still sell well, sugars and other chemicals are added to enhance the taste.

Fat as it turns out, does wonders for taste. Although many medical experts now agree that fat-free foods are likely to do more harm than good, it is still a large section of the food industry. 

Fats can be generally divided into three categories

Saturated fats : lard, butter, animal fats

Monounsaturated fats : olive oil, canola oil

Polyunsaturated fats : sunflower oil (omega-6) and fish, shellfish, flaxseed oils (omega-3).

A chemical process 

But wait, what are these trans-fats I keep hearing about? Trans fats belong into a category of their own. These are fats, that started out naturally as liquids, that were artificially made into a solid. This process is called hydrogenation. A chemical procedure in which the liquid oil is heated in the presence of a heavy metal catalyst, such as nickel. Hydrogen is then added and binds into the molecular makeup of the oil.

Not for your benefit 

Food manufacturers go through the trouble of hydrogenating their oils to increase shelve life, make their products tastier and change texture. Not only are these obvious benefits, it is also cheaper than using healthier fats.  Because of their unique composition, they can be reheated repeatedly, which is why they are often used to fry foods.

What is a safe amount? 

The big caveat of this artificially produced fat is that, because it is a very unnatural fat, our bodies have a very hard time digesting it. Trans fat consumption is linked to increased chance of heart attacks, stroke and even type II diabetes. This is why the American heart association advises people to limit their intake of saturated and trans fats, and instead eat lean meats, poultry and use natural oils such as olive oil and canola oil.

Better safe than sorry 

Doing so does prove hard for many people. Although some local governments are working on legislation limiting or even banning the use of trans fats, it is often unclear if your restaurant uses (partial) trans fats for their cooking. It is always wise to ask.


In June 2015 the FDA decided to remove trans fats from their list of food ingredients that were deemed safe. The food industry was given until 2018 to remove trans fats from their products.

Hiding in plain sight 

However, the FDA has said that if trans fat content is under half a gram per serving, a food manufacturer does not need to disclose it. They are even allowed to state that their product 'contains no trans fats'.

What this means is that if your consumption of said food containing trans fat exceeds a few servings, you can easily ingest more than a few grams. Because while the American Heart Association advises people to 'limit their intake', you should really ingest no trans fats whatsoever.

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